Join Ed Emberley for an in-depth discussion in this video Learning to draw and challenging yourself, part of Creative Inspirations: Ed Emberley, Children's Book Illustrator.
Ed Emberley: One thing you should know is that I draw many different ways, and the most usual way of starting a career as an illustrator is to develop a single technique in which you draw the same face the same way with the same brushes and the same ink and the same paint over and over again, which is fine. That's a good way to do things. However, even at that time, I worked in many different ways, and I had been working on a series of books and had bogged down with one book that had taken two years to do. So my publisher walked up to me and said, "You know, you haven't published for two years. You really should get something out." So I said, "But I have this little thing, which is not a masterwork of an illustrator with wonderful illustration, but is a way of drawing that I ran into when I was a child." I still remembered how to draw the little figure that I was taught how to draw from the Sunday paper.
It was still stuck in my memory. So then I said, "There must be something there." And as I had thought back, I thought well, this picture was really made of shapes that I could remember, like rectangles, triangles, circles, and that sort of thing. You're all familiar, I'm assuming most of the people who are watching me now are familiar with the ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ alphabet. Well, this is the drawing alphabet. We can also draw, I can show you how to draw using a picture alphabet. And these are the letters you have to know.
You do have to know how to make a shape that looks like this, that's round. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it must be round, just the same way you make the letter O, which is why even young children can do this. In fact, preschoolers, actually, it's very successful with preschoolers who haven't been introduced to the alphabet. In fact, some schools use this as an introduction to the more complicated alphabet of ABCDEFG. The second letter in my drawing alphabet I figured was going to be a rectangle. One, two, three, four. It doesn't have to be perfect, it doesn't have to be straight, but it must have four sides.
So it's a shape that has four sides, like that. The third letter in the drawing alphabet is the third shape, which is like this. One, two, three, it goes across like that. Then we can make the other, the one, two, three, the fourth shape is a half circle. Flat on one side, round on the other side. See, it's only half as big as the circle, so it should be half as hard to make. So we have one, two, three, four. The letter U that you see, so it's a line that goes down and back up again. And the last letter, the last letter in the drawing alphabet is a reverse curve, which sounds hard when you first hear it, so be careful of the thing that sounds hard and isn't always hard.
Sometimes a thing that sounds hard isn't hard once you see it, because the reverse curve is easy to draw, because you probably already know how to make it because it's the letter S, just like the letter S. It's a line that curves like this and back up and double like that. You have to know how to make a dot like that. You have to know how to make a larger dot like this. You have to know how to make a few straight lines like that, and you have to know how to scribble. Scribble, scribble, scribble, scribble, up and down, back and forth, every which way, scribble. And the book, the first book, looked a lot like this.
What it was is a book of assorted animals that can be drawn, limiting it to, if you have three markers, if you have an orange marker, a green marker, and a brown marker, and a black marker, that's four markers. So you don't have to have every color in the rainbow. And as you see the step-by-step illustration. Start with a pollywog, for instance. You draw that, you succeed, a little zing of success. You take the letter S and make a tail out it, the zing of success. You take a dot and put it up here, it becomes an eye. You take a line and put it up there, it becomes a mouth. And then it goes on. If you keep doing and following the same system, you can use the same limited number of shapes and make a dragon that looks like that, and a whole bunch of other animals that go in between.
I don't want the children to fail. The most important thing is that they are amused. The second most important thing is they do not fail. I didn't want to put a book up that made Ed Emberley a fancy guy. Oh boy! Can he draw a pictures! No, I wanted something they can succeed at. (music playing) (music playing) (crosstalk) People look at the drawings and they take them apart in their mind and they say, "Well, I never noticed that before, that this fox is made of a triangle, a rectangle, or another half circle." That kind of analysis helps them make their own animals, so it helps your brain work and problem-solve and puzzle-solve.
How many think you could make a triangle flat on the top, pointed on the bottom? How many think you could make a triangle flat on the top? Excellent! Very good! How many think they could make a little beetle here like this? There we go! But I wouldn't ask you to make a lion, no siree. I was having fun doing it this way, and the pages are made to be fun. And I think if I have fun, the fun is transferred to my listener.
If I'm bored, that boredom is going to transfer to somebody. So, am I an educator? I do not pretend to be an early learning specialist. I do not pretend to be an educator. I'm an entertainer. You could make a picture of a baby mouse and a mama mouse. All you have to do is make one mouse small, make the other mouse big. You could easily draw a picture of a short mouse and a tall mouse, just like that. You could make a picture of a great big Arnold Schwarzenegger mouse.
(singing) (children laughing) You could do one about the purple mice from outer space coming to attack planet Earth. (singing) (children laughing) I am being taught about my own drawing system, and what I've found is from local people in Ipswich and across the country--but this is all anecdotal, nobody writes to me about that--is that the kids with dyslexia, when there is a school that specializes in educating--and they're mostly boys--with dyslexia, found these books extremely useful, because after all, children in the first grade are memorizing their twenty-six-letter alphabet, and I can give them a six-letter alphabet.
And you can get children with dyslexia and get them to draw a mouse or a skunk ten times, rather than write the word banana ten times. There's a lot of reward for them if they learn how to draw a monster or a skunk or a fox or a turtle or a spider or something like that. (music playing) Rebecca Emberley: I was huge into boutique when I was in high school, silversmithing, sold a lot of that stuff, did craft fairs.
For a while, I was selling T-shirts to stores. I definitely have early memories of putting things together, assembling things. I dug out my old collage stuff from high school and said, "Well, you know what? If I'm going to do books, this is how I would like to do it." Michael Emberley: They were encouraging, in the household, to do something if you said you wanted to do something. Halloween, we made some really nice costumes. My mother helped me make this elaborate Planet of the Apes costume. It had like an articulated jaw. We made it out of paper mache and molded it on my head, and we made a lining for it and molded it so it had the jaw that moved just-- because I remember seeing the one in the movie, they were the first ones that had the jaws that moved.
And I can remember saying, "No, I want it to be like that," and so it was a collaborative-- I remember my mother mostly working on that one. They both went to art school and even though my mother didn't work professionally, she had gone all the way through art school and was a gifted craftsperson. She studied design, fashion design, and she had done an extensive amount of sewing. Barbara Emberley: My mother always painted and sewed and did all kinds of things, and I grew up with that, and I did the same thing, and the kids just joined in and did everything we did.
Neither one of them was particularly interested in the typical job, pumping gas at the gas station or working in the grocery store. And they weren't brought up on a nine-to-five basis. I think when push comes to shove, they had to be creative about almost everything. Ed: Because my time wasn't set, you could make it flexible. If I decided that I want to take four days off and try to make sandals, leather sandals, at that time was a big craft thing. We'd take a month off to make Christmas. Rebecca: There was a long time before I ever bought a Christmas present. I just didn't. We made them all.
I carried over all of the stuff that I had learned into my parenting experience, which was, prepare her to be a lifelong learner. And my parents, I think, inadvertently prepared us to be lifelong learners. If there is something that you want to know, go find it out. Adrian Emberley: It was fun growing up in this family. I didn't really know any other way. As an only child, I kind of figured this is what everybody's family must be like. Like everybody makes puppets and clothing and goes to their grandfather's house and does a new craft every day or something.
It was definitely fun and colorful and lively. That's for sure. Michael: When I was working with my father upstairs, like a lot of us did, we were doing sections of the book. He was doing drawing books, and he did a series of books with a color theme. When people do ask me how you get into books, I mean, because it was so practical and such an extension of what we were already doing, there wasn't that much pressure on me. It was just something to do.
If you hit a stumbling block, you might think, I just don't have it, whereas I never had that. I always thought this doesn't look good because you didn't do it well enough. And if you don't know how to do it well enough, you better figure out because you are going to have to pay rent. Rebecca: There isn't any medium that I didn't cover at some point. I left home feeling like there was very little that I couldn't do. And I think the greatest gift that came from being in that family, from growing up in that family, was complete lack of understanding that I could totally fail, knowing that I would always be able to make a living, knowing that if I couldn't do that, I would be doing something else.
Ed: They are both freelance. Rebecca lives in Maine, Michael lives in Ireland, and they've both been doing freelance all their lives. Neither one of them--Michael had a job for about three weeks. Barbara: We weren't regulated the same way. The only thing that really regulated us was the schools. We had to be there at a certain time and you had to take a vacation at a certain time. With the summers we could do pretty much what we wanted. Ed: So we would work hard, but then we were able to take off the kid's school vacations and we'd just go some place, go do something.
Instead of having them come home and letting them play with their friends, which probably would have been a good idea, we would say, "No, I don't want to hang around here. Let's go up to Trapp Family Lodge and go skiing. You've got a week off. Let's go skiing for a week." So we did a lot of, we called it adventuring. I remember skiing in Franconia at thirty-five below, thirty-five below, was it thirty-five below there? Barbara: It was forty below, and the car was frozen. Ed: Yeah, the car was frozen. Barbara: Solid, so we skied around while we were waiting for the tow track. Ed: We were skied around the lake.
It hurt to breathe, so I said, "Maybe we could go back now." It hurt to breathe. I said, "If it hurts to breathe, maybe that's cold enough." (music playing) Ah, my first sail, but you have to know something about sailboats.
But it was twelve feet long, and I still remember the first day I got it. I bought it in Marblehead, a very famous, well-known yarding area. A friend of mine who was already an experienced sailor and my wife were at my house, and he was waiting to go with me in the morning. But what I did instead was I went way out where they could just barely see me on the morning, and I got a big bawling out, for I had left no note. I had just taken off and sailed out. So I think a lot of--it helps to be dumb. It helps to be dumb because a smart person wouldn't have done that.
Number one, they would have at least left a note and said, "If I don't come back, I went over there. Go look for me over there." But it was like me meeting my wife. My wife and I met, and then one day we went just okay, let's make a life together, just like that. And the same thing happened with sailing. Okay, we are going to sail the sailboat. We are going to get bigger ones and bigger ones and eventually we are going to teach ourselves how to sail to Nantucket, which is a four-day trip. We are going to sail to Maine, which is a four-day trip, and we are going to take two little kids with us.
Well, the interesting thing about the boat is I had no electronic equipment. In fact, there wasn't much that existed to help you navigate. When you go up the coast of New England there are no roads. There are a series of small buoys going up the coast, and there are entrances to harbors. And you have to learn two things: you have to learn seamanship, how to take care of a boat when the waves get big or when the waves get small, and the second thing you have to learn is how to navigate and work your way up the coast, which is all math. It's all math.
And you have to measure the distance between the two buoys. You have to know when you are going to hit it. You have to mathematically allow for the effects of the tide on you. And to my surprise, I found that I not only enjoyed it, I don't have much interest in sailing when it's too easy and I don't have to do that, when there isn't a danger. The two entrances here when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction are extremely dangerous. When the tide is coming out, when the water, that ten feet of water, is scooting out of Essex and it meets a wind coming from the opposite direction, then the waves pile up and they go like this, quite high, and they can turn your boat over and you can die.
So it's nice to know those things. And I've found to my--perhaps not to my surprise, but I've found that I like that. And I notice gradually that I was restless and needed the same challenge when I was drawing or doing anything else. I think it's electrochemical. I think that's why people are different than animals. We have given a little shot of pleasure when we solve a problem. For instance, we'll use riding a bicycle; a lot of us share that experience.
If you can remember back to that experience, one of the things you probably noticed was, as you came closer and closer to actually being able to ride a bicycle, the stress became worse and worse. It was like a tympan, it was like a rubber disc, and you are pushing your head, trying to push your head through the rubber disc and it gets harder and harder and harder. Now some people back away. It gets harder and harder, then they back away, and some people just keep pushing and they go, and they go through the other side. One minute you can't ride bikes, the next minute you can.
The ability is there. Your body already knows how to ride a bicycle and ski. What you have to have is someone who says yes, you can, yes, you can, yes, you can, keep trying, don't be bothered with it. And if a child goes through that once or twice then they can take it and apply it to learning new skills, like nowadays looking for a new job, oh, it's too hard to learn a new job. Well, repetition, repetition will do it. Something you didn't think you could do, you can do later on.